by Malcolm Jolley
The contest for Toronto’s best Pho, in fooderatti circles, has been a mostly east versus west affair. The hipsters of Ossington proudly point to Joanne Kates’ review on the wall of Golden Turtle, while the Gen Xer parents of Riverdale are smug about Mimi’s hallowed place at the end of Gerrard Street’s Pho Row. Since I more or less live on Toronto’s Green Line, I am happy enough to enjoy both broths, the choice depending on which side of Yonge Street my travels took me. The city’s pho scene maintained a yin and yang peace, and I was happy to tear up basil on either restaurant’s bowls. Until a few weeks ago, when this precarious balance was, for me, upset.
Western Toronto pho aficionados know that in January, Golden Turtle shut down briefly for renovations. But Jamie Drummond and I didn’t when we agreed to meet there for a working lunch*. Undeterred, we walked down to the restaurant colloquially known as “The-Other-Pho-Place-Just-Down-From-Golden-Turtle”. But there we were indeed deterred – the demand for Pho on Ossington Avenue was greatly outstripping the ability of the other place to meet the supply on its own on that wet snowy afternoon.
It was at this point that Drummond suggested we check out the the cluster of Vietnamese restaurants not too distant at College and Dufferin. This triggered in me the recollection that one time when he and I were emerging from a pointedly non-working lunch on that very strip at Maria’s Sports Bar, I ran into a friend who claimed he had just eaten the best pho in Toronto across the street. We were all set, until we discovered there were two pho restaurants across the street from Maria’s. It was at this point that I did something I am not very proud of: I engaged in the practice commonly known as “racial profiling”. One of the two restaurants was not only much fuller, it was also much fuller of people I guessed might either be from Vietnam or descended from people from there. It worked, for that’s how we discovered Pho Linh.
The pho at Pho Linh is very good. It’s a softer (I think more chickeny) broth, with a little less star anise and sweet flavouring. I like tendon in my pho, and theirs are good and gummy big chunks. The rare beef is also nicely and finely cut. They appear to make their own garlicky chili sauce, which adds a nice kick. But what separates Pho Linh’s bowl from every other I’ve tried are two particular ingredients: Sodium and Eryngium foetidum. Or, in the case of the first element, its lack. That soft broth is, I have concluded, partly the result of holding back on the salt and, its cousin, MSG. As much as I enjoy many of the city’s phos, a ravaging thirst and a bit of a headache have often been part of their price; to be paid 30 minutes to an hour after the spoon had scraped the bowl for the last time. None of this came from the pho at Pho Linh. This ought to be enough for any self-respecting pho freak to try, but there’s more…
Culantro is the common name of the herb Eryngium foetidum, which is also known as Mexican cilantro. At Pho Linh it appears, along side of the usual basil, chili and bean sprouts, on the plate of fixins. When I asked our serve what it was, the answer I got was “long leaf herb”, which is an excellent description of it: a long stem that turns into a leaf. California cookbook author and food writer Andrea Nguyen explains that in Vietnam Ngo Gai is “a favored herb for tearing up and adding to hot bowls of pho beef noodle soup, ngo gai is more expensive than most Viet herbs because it’s slow to grow.” Perhpas this is why it’s not commonly found elsewhere in Toronto. Even at Pho Linh, diners are given only one leaf. To my palate it gave my pho garnish a slightly sour and vegetal lift, with a cilantro-like soapiness. I liked it, and I liked having something new and a little special with my $8 bowl of goodness.
Phonatics beware: Pho Linh gets busy on Saturdays and there are sometimes line-ups. Click here for a map and contact information.
*Pho is a good working lunch for us, since it defies wine pairings.
Malcolm Jolley is the executive editor of Good Food Revolution, founder and executive director of Good Food Media and a food and wine journalist based in Toronto. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley.